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SPANISH POLITICS

What does the far right’s victory in Italy mean for Spain?

With the recent victory of Giorgia Meloni's far-right Fratelli d'Italia party in the Italian elections, what - if anything - does her win mean for Spain's 2023 general elections and the Spanish far right?

What does the far right's victory in Italy mean for Spain?
Both Meloni and Abascal have criticised immigration and border policy as leftist and soft, and are critical of what they perceive to be the European Union's failure to secure its external borders. Photos: Igor PETYX, Javier SORIANO/AFP

By voting for Giorgia Meloni on Sunday, Italians voted for not only the first female Prime Minister in its history, but also the first far-right leader since Mussolini. 

Around one in four voters in last week’s election backed Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy in English, a party with deep post-fascist roots that campaigned on low taxes, traditional Catholic family values, and promises of putting an end to mass immigration.

READ ALSO: What will a far-right government mean for Italy

As we have seen from populist far-right politicians the world over in recent years, Meloni’s campaign raged at the state of the modern world and hit on populist talking point after talking populist talking point, criticising what she perceives as the “LGBT lobby”, “woke ideology” and “violence of Islam”.

For those of you with any familiarity with Spanish politics, some of this language may seem familiar.

Spain’s very own far-right party, Vox, often use similar language and rage against vague notions of ‘woke’ thought.

Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, has spent the last few years cultivating a narrative that traditional Spanish identity is under attack from a combination of LGBT groups, immigrants, and Islam.

EXPLAINED: Is Brothers of Italy a ‘far right’ party?

Vox and Abascal have both been widely criticised for being racist, xenophobic, homophobic and misogynistic, and Meloni’s victory in Italy has understandably led many to wonder, can the far right win in Spain?

To transpose one country’s set of political circumstances directly onto another would be an oversimplification. Spain and Italy are different countries with different cultures, political systems, histories, and levels of stability.

In Italy, there have been 77 governments in 70 years, whereas Spain has traditionally been dominated by its to establishment parties, PSOE and PP.

Yet, it is impossible to ignore some of the similarities between Vox and Brothers of Italy, not least the fact that Vox and Meloni have had a direct relationship in the past.

So, what does the far-right’s victory in Italy mean for Spanish politics?

Reaction in Spain

Understandably, the Italian elections have made big news in Spain.

Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares reacted by saying that “these are uncertain times and at times like this, populist movements always grow, but it always ends in the same way – in catastrophe – because they offer simple short-term answers to problems which are very complex.”

Unsurprisingly, the response of the Spanish far-right struck a different chord.

“Tonight, millions of Europeans have their hopes pinned on Italy,” Santiago Abascal tweeted in the aftermath of the result, accompanied by pictures of himself with Meloni. Abascal: “Giorgia Meloni has shown the way forward for a Europe of proud, free and sovereign nations, capable of cooperating for the security and prosperity of all. Avanti Fratelli d’Italia.”

Far-left party Unidas Podemos’s leader Ione Belarra, however, warned that “the victory of the Italian far right showcases the normalisation of hate speech and the lack of courageous policies that protect the social majority. Spain is not free from experiencing something like this.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, perceived by some to be a more moderate PP leader who took over from Pablo Casado earlier this year, was slow in responding publicly. His response, which came a couple of days after the result, was noncommittal and “to see what the Government of Italy does.”

Abascal-Meloni connection

The connection between the two far-right parties predates Meloni’s recent victory. In May 2021 members of the Italian far-right came to Spain to meet with Abascal in Madrid to reaffirm “the total harmony of the two political formations in the face of the new challenges facing the continent.”

Meloni returned to Madrid in October 2021 to participate in Vox’s convention, noting the “increasingly close collaboration between the Brothers of Italy and Vox within the family of European conservatives.”

Meloni chairs the Group of European Conservatives and Reformists, of which Vox is a member, and she made a speech, in Spanish, at a Vox campaign rally in Marbella in June ahead of the regional elections in Andalusia that was laden with in anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, LGT and unashamedly racist rhetoric.

In a recent radio interview on EsRadio, Abascal claimed that the “relationship with Giorgia Meloni is very close for reasons of political identity…I see it as a great reaction of nations to political elites who have turned their backs on them.” 

Policy

So, where do Vox and Brothers of Italy align on policy?

One major point of policy convergence is on immigration. Both Meloni and Abascal have criticised immigration and border policy as leftist and soft, and are critical of what they perceive to be the European Union’s failure to secure its external borders – an issue very topical in both Spain and Italy as both have external European borders in the Mediterranean.

In Spain, the focus of this anti-immigrant rhetoric has focused on its southern regions and Ceuta and Melilla, its African enclaves and Europe’s only land borders with Africa.

Meloni, too, has cited Ceuta and Melilla as examples of the EU’s failed border policy, and even proposed a naval blockade of the Mediterranean. Vox have long used border problems in Ceuta and Melilla as a rallying call and supported an increased military presence to “guarantee the protection of these territories against invasions promoted by neighbouring states or international organisations.”

On abortion, Meloni struck a noticeably softer tone during her election campaign. Though in the past she has aligned herself with anti-abortion rhetoric and policy and this has been particularly pronounced within her party, she has ruled out overturning Italy’s abortion law. Her underlying stance on abortion has, however, worried many pro-abortion and women’s group because though not explicitly promising to repeal abortion rights, she has stated that she “wants [people] to know there are other options.”

Vox, on the other hand, have been more explicit in their desire to repeal Spain’s abortion legalisation, and have been critical of Spain’s recent legalisation of euthanasia.

On gender and LGBT issues, both are critical of what they believe to be the degrading of traditional family values and see the LGBT movement as an ideological, left versus right issue. In Meloni’s words, LGBT rights are “historically positioned itself on the left.”

Vox too have been fierce in the criticism of LGBT education in schools, something they believe to be “gender indoctrination.” This is a position shared by Meloni and the Spanish far-right, as she outlined in an interview in May: “We are still concerned about the involvement of children and adolescents in issues such as gender ideology that only generate confusion and a sense of insecurity.”

On the regional level Vox have taken this a step further, introducing a ‘Parental Pin’ that allows parents to withdraw their children from LGBT education workshops in the southern region of Murcia.

READ ALSO: Vox’s ‘Parental Pin’ – how Spain’s far-right is battling for parental vetoes in schools

Vox and Brothers of Italy perhaps differ most on climate change. Whereas Meloni has conceded that efforts must be taken to slow the effects of climate change, Vox decries what they call a “climate religion” and frame it as part of a broader narrative about an attack on working people.

Lega leader Matteo Salvini, Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi and Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni acknowledge applause on stage on September 22th 2022 during a joint rally ahead of Italy’s general election. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

Meloni effect?

Vox have had a swift rise to relevance since its creation in 2013, breaking onto the electoral map in regional elections in Murcia in 2019.

Since then, it has overtaken Unidas Podemos as Spain’s third political party behind PSOE and PP, and in April Vox entered into a regional government for the first time in coalition with PP in the central Castilla y León region just north of Madrid.

READ ALSO: Spain’s far-right Vox sworn into regional government

For many political observers in Spain, this triggered fears that Vox could threaten to replicate their position of junior coalition partner at the national level. 

Yet the far-right party’s performance in recent regional Andalusian elections quelled fears. In fact, since that disappointing result, much of Vox’s attention has been taken up by internal infighting between their former candidate in Andalusia, Macarena Olona, and the party’s leadership.

Though Meloni’s victory will worry many in Spain and has sparked fears that the far-right could sweep to power in Spain, it must not be forgotten that the two political contexts – and structures – are different. Spanish politics, like in Britain or the United States, is dominated by the two major establishment parties.

The prospect of Vox, or indeed any third party, overtaking either of them and becoming the biggest party in parliament, whether with a majority or as a coalition leader, is very unlikely.

The question is not whether Vox and Santiago Abascal will take up a position in La Moncloa, but whether they can affect Spanish politics, particularly the centre-right People’s Party, to influence policy or even enter into a national coalition.

The fact that Meloni will be Italy’s next Prime Minister, however, could rally the Spanish far right and give them a short-term boost in the polls, or even convince some wavering voters considering voting for Vox that their vote wouldn’t be wasted.

Looking ahead

A lot will depend on whether the PP can strengthen its position enough in the coming year to ensure it can govern alone, and not need to rely on Vox as a junior coalition partner, or whether Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE led government can recover in the polls and present a coherent policy platform despite having a large chunk of its time in office eaten up by the pandemic and cost of living crisis.

Looking at the latest polling data from Europe Elects, Vox have been declining steadily since reaching a high of 20.2 percent in March 2022, which briefly put it within touching distance of the two main parties, down to 15.3 percent in September.

The PSOE government is polling around 24.7 percent, PP 32.1 percent, and the junior coalition partner in government, Podemos, polling 10.4 percent. 

The next general election is slated for some time in late-2023, and it remains to be seen if PP can pull away enough for an overall majority, or if Vox will benefit from a Meloni-bounce in the polls, eat into PP’s vote share, and make the prospect of the Spanish far-right in a national coalition a political reality.

One surety, though, is that Vox will want to use Meloni and that we can expect to see her in Spain supporting Vox on the campaign trail in the near future. It promises to be an eventful year in Spanish politics.

READ ALSO: 

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SPANISH POLITICS

Right leads mass protest against Spanish government in Madrid

Thousands of people protested in Madrid on Saturday against Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's leftist government in a rally held in a key election year that was backed by far-right party Vox.

Right leads mass protest against Spanish government in Madrid

Participants waved red and yellow Spanish flags and called on Sanchez to resign. Some held up signs with a photo of the Socialist premier calling him a “traitor”.

Around 30,000 people gathered in Madrid’s Cibeles Square for the rally, according to the central government’s delegation in the Spanish capital. Organisers said some 700,000 people had taken part.

The protest was called by dozens of right-leaning civil society groups and backed by conservative parties including the main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) and Vox.

The right is angered by the government’s decision to abolish the crime of sedition, of which nine separatist leaders were convicted over their role in the Catalonia region’s abortive secession bid in 2017. It was replaced with an offence carrying a lower prison sentence.

READ MORE: Spain drops sedition charge against ex-Catalan leader

Conservatives are also angered by a flagship law against sexual violence that toughened penalties for rape but eased sentences for other sexual crimes. This has set some convicts free after their jail terms were reduced.

Speaking to reporters at the start of the rally, Vox leader Santiago Abascal denounced “the worst government in history” which “has divided Spaniards and freed rapists and coup leaders”.

“We need a permanent and massive mobilisation until the autocrat Pedro Sanchez is expelled from power,” he added.

Conservative poll edge 

Retired accountant Antonio Orduna, 67, told AFP said he was upset the government was “letting those who want to break up Spain off the hook.”

He cited the abolishment of the crime of sedition and Sanchez’s 2021 decision to pardon the Catalan separatists initially sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison for their role in the failed secession bid.

Madrid protests

A protestor holds a Spanish national flag as they gather during the anti-government demonstration on the Plaza de Cibeles square in Madrid, on January 21st, 2023. Photo by Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP

Catalonia’s attempt to become an independent state sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, with then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several others fleeing abroad to escape prosecution.

PP leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo, who has tried to push the party to the centre since becoming its leader in April, was not at the rally but encouraged members for the formation to attend.

Most polls suggest the PP would win a general election expected at the end of the year but would need the support of Vox to govern. Before that, Spain will vote in May in regional and local elections.

One of the main dilemmas facing Feijoo is whether to continue pursuing political alliances with Vox as it has in some region or to freeze them out to try to widen the PP’s base.

Vox splintered off from the PP in 2013 and is now the third-largest force in parliament.

‘Before the abyss’

Lacking a parliamentary majority, Sanchez’s government has been forced since its formation to negotiate with Basque and Catalan separatists to pass bills, which has angered many on the right.

Conservatives accuse Sanchez of having eliminated the crime of sedition to assure the continued support of Catalan pro-independence party ERC in tight parliamentary votes.

“All he cares about is remaining in power,” said Rosa Torosio, a 44-year-old housewife at the rally.

Spain protest

Protesters wave Spanish national flags during the anti-government demonstration on the Plaza de Cibeles square in Madrid, on January 21st, 2023. Photo by Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP

The government argues sedition is an antiquated offence that needed to be replaced with one better aligned to European norms.

Sanchez defended his record, telling a Socialist party rally in the northern city of Valladolid on Saturday his government had to take steps to defuse the conflict in Catalonia.

The separatist bid which happened under the watch of the previous PP government had left Spain standing “before the abyss,” he added.

Sanchez also recalled that his government has ramped up social spending to help Spaniards deal with high inflation, for example by increasing pensions and civil servant salaries.

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